Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hiking in Taiwan

Bob and I went hiking in Yangmingshan National Park, which is just a metro ride away from Taipei. We made it to the peak of Mt. Qixing, which at 1120 meters/3675 feet is the highest mountain in Taipei. It's also a dormant volcano, so there was plenty of sulphur pits around, which you'll see below.

Because of the volcanic rock, the vegetation around Taipei is very lush and green, similar to Hawai'i. We saw several different types of flowers, plants, and fungi.

The walking paths throughout the park were very well maintained. They were also very steep.

We basically walked up stairs for 3 kilometers! And then walked down stairs for 3 kilometers.

It was interesting to see how the vegetation changed. At lower heights it looked like the photos above, with lots of green ferns, flowers, and other plants. But because of the weather pattern here (it's very close to the ocean), you see vegetation differences at lower elevations than you would see elsewhere. At around 500 m, the dense, green vegetation changes to bamboo.

Around 900 m the bamboo gives away to this sturdy grass.

After many, many, many steps (and a few complaints from me) we finally reached the top of the mountain, where it was quite cold!

After enjoying the peak for about 2 minutes, we decided to head down the mountain on a different path.

This path took us by many fumaroles, which really, really smelled. A fumaroles is a vent which emits steam and gasses. The gasses, which on this particular volcano are sulphur dioxide (hence the smell), escape through vents on the side of the mountain, discoloring the area around them.

This particular fumarole was huge! It made such an explosive noise and produced a lot of steam.

Most people don't get as close to the fumarole as Bobby. The smell keeps you away, which is good because sulphur dioxide is poisonous.

After our hike, we visited a public hot spring. The volcano produces a lot of great hot springs in the area. The one we visited had pools at different temperatures. We started in the warm pool and made our way up to the hottest pool, which was a scalding 46.2 C/115 F. I could only get my feet into that pool, but Bob was able to brave the heat and put his whole body in! Unfortunately, photos were not allowed at the pool.

After our hike and hot spring visit, we headed back to the city for dinner. We went to a local place known for its beef noodle soup. We had a lot of side dishes: these sautéed bean sprouts.

We thought this was some kind of bacon. It was delicious! Only later did we find out that this is pig ears. Wonderful, delicious pig ears.

Chard with pork and bean curd.

Some kind of sea vegetable. This was my least favorite dish.

And the main event: beef noodle soup! The beef was fall-apart, meltingly delicious. The broth was also great.

No dinner would be complete without dumplings, so we had an order of spicy dumplings. Oh man, these were so good.

Since I only complained during 95% of the hike, I earned a treat. We ordered a small (no joke) mango snow ice to share. I love, love, love snow ice! So much better than shave ice.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, Botanical Gardens, and Longshan Temple

We have been home for a week now, so I thought it was time to get caught up on blogging about the rest of our trip to Taiwan. What a great trip: a successful conference for Bob, great weather, cheap and delicious food, and beautiful sights. One of the things we visited was the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, pictured here.

After ascending the 88 steps (one for each year of his life), you reach the inside of the memorial where you see a huge statue of former leader Chiang Kai-shek. The Taiwanese are a divided on the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek, 'president' of Taiwan from 1950 to his death in 1975. Chiang was the former leader of China for nearly 20 years before losing control to the Communists and Mao. He then moved to Taiwan, where he established the Republic of China (not to be confused with mainland China's People's Republic of China) and ruled with an iron fist as the leader of the only party despite a democratic constitution.

Whatever one's views of Chiang Kai-shek and his tenure as the first president of Taiwan, you can't argue that his memorial is huge (you can definitely argue about its tastefulness, though).

While visiting the memorial we got to see the changing of the guards, which happens hourly. There were all the classics of a guard change: inspection, funny walks, lots of waving around giant guns, and some very serious faces.

Looking from the memorial you can see two beautiful buildings flanking the large boulevard. On the left is the National Theatre; on the right is the National Concert Hall.

The two halls are quite large, colorful, and well maintained.

Surrounding the memorial and halls are quiet gardens. These gardens, complete with ponds, fish, and bridges, and peaceful spots in the middle of the huge city of Taipei.

Close to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial is the Taipei Botanical Gardens. It is a very lovely place with many well-maintained gardens that showcase the natural plants, trees, bushes, and flowers of the island of Taiwan (and  a great place to visit to see how allergic you are to Taiwanese flora and fauna!).

The tropical flowers were lovely. The hibiscus plants were giant!

There is also a large lily pond inside the gardens.

We also visited the Longshan Temple in Taipei. First built in 1738, the temple was unfortunately burned down or destroyed in the many fires and earthquakes that have plagued Taipei. The building was also destroyed by American bombs during WW2, when Taiwan was occupied by Japan.

The temple is dedicated to the Buddhist god of mercy, Guanyin, but over 100 other gods are worshipped here as well.

One of the gods worshipped here is the god of literature, Wenchang Dijun. Our guide book said that if you visit the temple during exam times, you will see many offerings near Wenchang Dijun. The god of war (who, oddly enough, is the patron god to both policemen and gangsters), Guan Gong, is also worshipped here. I like the offerings of flowers, fruits, and sweets, though we also saw offerings of cigarettes and bottle of bad beer. I guess the gods also have their vices.

This large incense holder at Longshan Temple is rather unique. The 'fool holding up the sky' is a common motif in Buddhism, but the purposefully Western styling of the fool is unusual. It is thought that this 'fool' is stylized after the 17th century Dutch occupiers of Taiwan.

Monday, October 27, 2014

First days in Taipei

Bob and I are in Taipei, Taiwan, for nearly two weeks (Bob has a 5 day-long conference, ISMIR, and we are staying for an additional week). We arrived on Saturday after two long flights and one long (5 + hours) lay-over in Dubai. Bob's conference takes place in the HUGE Grand Hotel.

Truly, this hotel is giant. It sits on the side of a very lush, steep hill. In fact, most of this large city is covered in lush vegetation. It reminds me a lot of Hawai'i: very green, lots of steep hills, dramatic mountains, quite warm (even in late October it's in the high 20s C/80s F), and very, very humid (it's 75% humidity today). In fact, both Bob and I need to buy some clothes while we're here as we don't have enough shorts/skirts with us, and there is no way I am going to wear jeans in this weather!

We arrived on Saturday early evening. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, we were both quite tired, so after getting settled into our apartment, we headed to the Shilin Night Market for a bite to eat. The night market (one of many night markets in Taipei) is directly across from where we're staying, which is quite convenient. We managed to stay awake until 22:00, which helped us get into the schedule.

After waking up early on Sunday, we headed out to do a bit of exploring and to acquaint ourselves with the city. We are staying in the Shilin district, the northern part of Taipei. We headed a bit south to visit the Confucius Temple. Constructed in the late 1920s, the temple is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher.

 The temple and surrounding buildings are beautiful. The craftsmanship is amazing; the dragons, flowers, and other figures are so detailed and brightly colored.

 Right across from the Confucius Temple is the Buddhist Bao'an Temple. A Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award recipient, this temple is also beautiful. Though founded in 1760, the current temple was renovated in 1995-2002.

Many people were leaving offerings at the temple. In addition to offerings of flowers and prayers, people also left sweets, cakes, and a plate of tofu, pork, and an egg. A stick of incense was speared into the tofu.

The sites and the city are great, but truth be told, the best part of the trip so far has been the food. Prior to arriving in Taipei, Bob and I had already had a fantastic introduction to Taiwanese food via Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles. In fact, Din Tai Fung is on the list of places we MUST go when we fly to LA to visit family (it's up there with BCD Tofu House in Korea Town, half-price sushi in Burbank, and Mexican food everywhere). In Taipei, we start our day off with breakfast from 7/11 (similar to the breakfasts we had in Japan): cartons of coffee (the coffee drinks here are sold cold, sweet, and milky, which is perfect for the hot weather) and onigiri (rice triangles filled with a variety of savory items like pork, duck, or fish, all wrapped in seaweed).

There is plenty of opportunity for snacking here. Aside from the convenience shops like 7/11, there are many stalls selling fresh fruits, smoothies, and other healthy things. We happened upon a farmer's market while walking, and Bob's 8th sense (his pomelo sense; Bob's 6th sense is for coffee, 7th is for stamps) instantly found a pomelo stand. These were the largest pomelos I've every seen! The one we bought weighed 2 kg/4.4 lb. After struggling for 5 minutes to peel it (we normally peel pomelos with a knife, but we didn't have one on us), Bob and I dug in to this king of citruses.

For lunch we stumbled across a fantastic local spot. We spent the first 10 minutes trying to match the Chinese characters to words we know (soup dumplings, pork, beef) until Bob smartly asked for an English menu. We ordered: Chinese beef burrito (their name, not ours); corn and pork wontons; steamed soup dumplings with pork; and spicy beef noodle soup. Oh my gods, this was good! In fact, when Bob asked me what the best part of the day was, I responded without hesitation that lunch was the best part of the day.

In the evening, we met with Bob's Austrian colleague and friend Arthur. We walked around our local Shilin Night Market, where we tried a variety of food: different kinds of steamed dumplings, grilled mushrooms, an interesting drink make from bitter melon gourd, and many other things. We also tried the pictured pork-wrapped scallions. Everything is quite cheap (the scallion thing was only 20 Taiwanese dollars, or $0.66), and most things are sold in small quantities, which I love. It means I can gets lots of different things!

For dessert we had a Taiwanese specialty: snow ice. Said to have been invented in the Shilin Night Market, snow ice is basically shaved ice cream. You get the texture of Hawai'ian shave ice but with the flavor and mouth-feel of creamy ice cream. It's heaven. Bob and I shared this lychee-flavored snow ice. There were many other flavors available, so I plan on trying a new one every night!

This trip is off to a great start.